The Mexican Bolillo Tradition That Cures Fear With Bread

In the century and a half since its birth, the bolillo has become an integral part of Mexico's food scene, notably as the bread of choice for many iconic tortas. It's also worked its way into Mexico's popular culture, most famously as a folk remedy for those who are frightened or anxious. "Un bolillo para el susto," the traditional saying goes (via Gaceta UNAM). Eat a bolillo for a scare. The source of the scare isn't important. It could be bad news or a natural disaster. Soothe yourself with bites from a bolillo, and the fear will go away.

Although the remedy's efficacy is questioned by some in Mexico, there's no doubt that many people around the country still believe it works. They may be right, too. There's actually quite a bit of medical science to support these traditional claims. Beyond the idea of comfort eating, consuming carbs during an adrenaline spike may actually help settle our stomachs and fuel our brains.

The science behind the traditional remedy

Why would eating bread in times of fright cause fears to subside? According to Healthline, there is a simple explanation as to why eating bread may help when we experience stress. In times of fear or extreme stress, our fight-or-flight response is turned on, flooding our brains with adrenaline, and speeding up our metabolism. As a consequence, the brain needs more glucose (blood sugar) to support this overload, and eating a bolillo helps to provide it.

A professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, Nayeli Ortiz-Olvera, agrees that bolillos work to dissipate a fright, but explains it somewhat differently. The flood of adrenaline caused by fear also speeds up our breathing and heart rates. But it does something else, too. It causes a sinking feeling in the pit of our stomachs. Ortiz-Olvera, a gastroenterologist, believes this is the root cause of a bolillo's effectiveness in such situations. Chewing its delicious crispy crust or its wonderfully soft interior helps to calm people down, bringing breathing and heart rates back to normal. Meanwhile, the bolillo's carbohydrates counteract the increased production of stomach acids caused by the scare.

"The bolillo mitigates the feeling of anguish and emptiness in the stomach, that's why it helps us. So our grandmothers and our mothers are right when they tell us to eat a bolillo to take away our fear and anxiety because it does work," she confirmed to NBC News.

The bolillo may cure a scare, but so too will other foods

So it's true — a few bites of a bolillo will help to reduce stress in times of extreme fear. But based on these medical explanations, other foods will, too. Ortiz-Olvera notes that tortillas are also a good food to eat when scared. Lorena Torres, a nutritionist in Mexico, claims virtually any food will do the trick because all that's needed is glucose to help counteract the body's release of cortisol and adrenaline during the fight-or-flight response. Thus, why not eat something with a bit more nutritional value? Her solution, proposed via Mexico-City-based media outlet Chilango, is to put a bit of avocado on your bolillo. That way you get some protein and healthy fat, in addition to the carbs you're consuming to chase away the scare.

The act of chewing, which Ortiz-Olvera mentioned as key in helping to reduce the rapid breathing and heart rate caused by fear, may be even more important to reduce the anxiety of stressful situations than the type of food consumed. Just chewing, with or without food in one's mouth, has been shown to reduce stress. Chewing gum has also proved effective in this regard, according to a 2016 study published in the BioMed Research International.

So maybe you don't need to chew on bolillos specifically to chase away a scare. But they sure are delicious.